Sailing Is Cool Right Now

It's a big year with the Olympics and America's Cup back-to-back, but even down at the roots, there's plenty of excitement.
The Ocean Race 2022-23 - 29 June 2023.
“We didn’t start out the way we wanted to,” Charlie Enright said. “But we knew we wanted to be the best team at the end, not at the beginning.” Lexi Pline/US Sailing

Charlie Enright ­concluded one year by accepting World Sailing’s most important award: Team of the Year. It was indeed the entirety of the 11th Hour Racing effort that won The Ocean Race in spectacular fashion, on the water and ashore. As a sailing team, they pushed hard and they got faster. They broke their boat and got stronger. And as a collective team, they are ambassadors true to their social causes, and have fully earned the respect of their competitors. Paul Elvstrøm would be proud.

And Charlie Enright began this year by accepting the coveted Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award. The men’s shortlist featured a stacked and worthy group of champions with long lists of accolades, but there was one skipper whose résumé occupied only one line. “Ocean Race Winner,” it read. As a member of the selection committee, when I first saw the shortlist, I thought to myself: Why bother with the voting? I mean, what he did to win that race was incredible. He already had my vote, because Charlie Enright led the first American team to the ­pinnacle of offshore racing and won, and did so with grace and tenacity. Hooray for the USA. We’re back on top.

It wasn’t long ago when ­pundits were down on American yacht-racing prowess, but I believe that a shift is happening. Enright and 11th Hour Racing’s success is but one rose in the bouquet of American sailing today. There is much to celebrate about our sport domestically and the progress that’s been made on so many fronts. Trust me, I’ve been accused of being naive from where I sit in the wonderland of Newport, Rhode Island, and maybe I am guilty of seeing rainbows through my rose-tinted glasses, and be that as it may, whenever someone asks me my opinion of the “state of the sport,” I’m always quick to reply: “Awesome. It’s all happening.”

What’s happening is that ­sailing is cool again, and it will be especially so this year, with both the Olympic Regatta in France and the Louis Vuitton 37th America’s Cup in Barcelona. Talk about an epic European summer.

The Olympics come first, of course, and I for one can’t wait to see the amazing and talented Daniela Moroz kite and smile her way onto the front of my Wheaties box. And after following the trials battle of Ian Barrows and Hans Henken, our 49er hopefuls, I’m looking forward to these two guys having the regatta of their life. They’re right there at the top, poised and determined because they know that this is most likely their one and only shot. And they will give it their best. High-speed racing on double-trap skiffs is as cool as Olympic sailing gets.

While the remainder of our Paris-bound (or technically, Marseille) athletes are yet to be finalized, I’m confident that Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, in the 49erFX, will get their berth and wow us. Same for Stuart McNay and Lara Dallman-Weiss, a strong new team with the right stuff.

And then we’re on to Barcelona. As I write, it’s early February, which puts us officially into the year of the America’s Cup. It is hard to believe that only three years ago, the AC75s of Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli were squaring off in Auckland. New Zealand was an excellent arena for Cup racing, and while I’m sure it’s a bummer for citizen Kiwis to not have the action on their harbor again, the Cup’s controversial move to the Mediterranean will elevate this ancient regatta to next-level status. Louis Vuitton, Prada, L’Oréal, Red Bull and so many other big commercial partners will no doubt get this old city humming from June through October. It will be a spectacle onshore, but on the beautiful blue Med,
the sailing will be fast, close and high-stakes, as always. Entertaining us on the side stages will be the Women’s and Youth America’s Cup regattas in the AC40s, as well as superyachts, foilers and water toys of all sorts. There will be a lot of eyeballs on Barcelona this year, and what they’ll see is that sailing is cool.

America’s Cup Recon. Tuesday the 30th of January 2024.
The Women’s and Youth America’s Cup sailors of INEOS Britannia make the jump from simulator to AC40s in January. Paul Todd/ America’s Cup

Front and center will be the New York YC’s American Magic Challenge, and if Enright is going to lay claim to the offshore throne, then Terry Hutchinson dang well better win the America’s Cup. There are no excuses this time: They have the world’s best helmsman in Tom Slingsby driving their bus, and in the opposite cockpit will be Paul Goodison, who is also stellar, as is every one of the sailors and cyclors who makes this team a favorite on its second attempt. They have an excellent base location in Barcelona: out on the peninsula, close to the beach viewing area, and next to the hospitality and fan zones. They’re next door to the Italians, so they should never be wanting for espresso and Red Bull.

Hutchinson and the team have always kept a low profile. That’s his MO. So, thankfully, we’ve had the America’s Cup Recon teams keeping us up to date and in the loop. From afar, I get the impression that this campaign is all going according to plan; those in the know tell me that they’re doing things right, and they will be fast and sharp. We’ll be there when the Cup action starts in August, bearing witness to the coolest sailing regatta of all time.

And while on the topic of cool, and cool kids, it’s now worth bringing into the conversation Taylor Canfield and Mike Buckley, who are finally getting a crack at sailing stardom. It’s been fun to watch them get swallowed up in the circus and hype of SailGP as the new All-American squad that’s already proving to be a menace to the fleet (in a good way) while giving some of the old guard notice. The team’s CEO and co-owner, Mike Buckley, has somehow hooked in Hollywood celebrities, pro-sport athletes and big-time tech investors, and these backers come with followers. Followers are eyeballs, and those new eyeballs will see some wild and crazy foiling catamarans over the next year. They might not know the first thing from a tack to a jibe or ever take to the sport, but you know what they’ll think? Man, this sailing thing is cool.

While it’s easy to see coolness in the glitz and glamour of the top of the sport, I would argue that sailing at the grassroots level is cool right now as well. Are we back to the glory days of sailing? Not yet, but right now, there are giant fleets enjoying midwinter regattas in Florida and unknown pockets of vibrant local dinghy and handicap races happening every weekend across the country. Wingfoiling is exploding in so many ways, windsurfing is enjoying a resurgence, and one offshore sailing event after another is breaking attendance numbers. And there are American teams and sailors winning them. We have far more women on the water today, and they are stockpiling trophies, hearts and followers everywhere. If you don’t believe me, find Cole Brauer Ocean Racing on Instagram and admire her 350,000 followers (and growing by the day).

Finally, we’re about to embark on our next season of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series with an amazing and diverse fleet of classes at the St. Petersburg YC in Florida. This annual winter gathering of more than 200 boats has ­blossomed into a panorama of our sport today, from the ubiquitous J/70s to Melges 15s; the old-school Lightnings, Contenders, Flying Dutchman, Windmills, J/24s, S27.9s and Hobie 33s; the ­multihulls of the Weta ­trimarans; and the booming A Class cats. There’s a formidable ORC fleet and a bumper crop of PHRF teams lined up to do two days of long-course ­racing with family and friends on Tampa Bay. It’s going to be cool, and a great start to the series, which also returns to Detroit after a decade. I expect a great year ahead for American sailing, so thank you to Charlie Enright for kicking it off right.